We have been trying to lay out the evidence for the following idea: Political liberals hold a philosophical vision that is similar and overlaps with the vision held by modernists in the Church. This vision has been called the “unconstrained vision” by the economist and political scientist Thomas Sowell. To the extent we use the terms liberal vs. conservative in the Church it is less revealing than determining if someone really is a modernist or shares modernist views.
For those just tuning in now, I discuss the details behind all this here and here . As I mentioned earlier is one clear clue that someone is a “modernist” is that they do not necessarily see the term as pejorative. An interesting recent example is a column by the well regarded religion reporter, John Allen who writes for the National Catholic Reporter, a liberal… err modernist Catholic outfit. He writes
“Italian commentator Sandro Magister recently said Francis seems “friendly to everyone, except the traditionalists.” The feeling is apparently mutual; during a stop in Kansas City, Mo., the head of the society, Bishop Bernard Fellay, reportedly described Francis as “a true modernist,” understood in his circles as the ultimate in pejoratives.
Now I do not wish to align myself with the SSPX or Bishop Fellay, because as we have already noted, The SSPX have placed themselves outside the Church by their rejection of Vatican II. See our discussion here . I site Allan’s comments merely to note that he must tell his readers that being called a modernist is a pejorative in those radical precincts of the SSPX. Interesting, I think given that modernism is a heresy it should be regarded as a pejorative in general.
I think most leftist Catholics do not deny their sympathies with modernists. They embrace them. It is unfortunate that St Pius X used the amorphous phrase “modernism” to address the heresy he describes. The name is really not descriptive of the underlying philosophy, so it is easily misunderstood merely as opposition to what is new, and therefore this opposition can be regarded as merely trying to hold on to antiquated ideas. It is better to see the root of the problem as the theological manifestation of the “unconstrained vision” before the point at which you drift into overt atheism.
The problem is that the unconstrained vision is attractive. It does not market itself as hubris and an arrogant utopianism; it initially comes across more as being about progress, science, openness to change, and optimism. Since it is superficially attractive it easily infects everyone and in particular it can infect the Church. Who among us wants to be seen as anti-progress, anti-science, and pessimistic?
There is no doubt that strains of modernist thought exist within the Church. The immediate question is to what extent Pope Francis is a modernist? To answer let’s see what the Pope actually says
It seems he believes the ultimate decision about what scripture means is determined by the teaching magisterium as opposed to the biblical scholars. In April 2012, speaking to the Pontifical Biblical Commission he said:
The Second Vatican Council reasserted very clearly in the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Verbum: “All that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God”
It follows that the exegete must be attentive to perceiving the word of God present in the biblical texts, fitting them into the Church’s faith itself. The interpretation of the Sacred Scriptures cannot only be an individual scientific effort. Rather, it must always be confronted, inserted and authenticated by the living Tradition of the Church. This rule is decisive in order to explain the correct and reciprocal relationship between exegesis and the Magisterium of the Church. The texts inspired by God were entrusted to the Community of believers, to the Church of Christ, to nourish faith and to guide the life of charity. Respect for this profound nature of the Scriptures conditions the validity and effectiveness of biblical hermeneutics.
Pope Francis is definitely not “soft” on abortion, although it is a little incredible on the face of it that any Pope could conceivable be “soft” on abortion. Still given media reports that he might be, it is worth reproducing his comments to the International Catholic Medical Federation which I do below:
A widespread mentality of the useful, the “culture of waste” that today enslaves the hearts and minds of so many, comes at a very high cost: it asks for the elimination of human beings, especially if they are physically or socially weaker. Our response to this mentality is a decisive and unreserved “yes” to life. “The first right of the human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental — the condition of all the others” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on procured abortion, 18 November 1974, n. 11). Things have a price and can be sold, but people have a dignity; they are worth more than things and are above price. So often we find ourselves in situations where we see that what is valued the least is life. That is why concern for human life in its totality has become in recent years a real priority for the Church’s Magisterium, especially for the most defenseless; i.e., the disabled, the sick, the newborn, children, the elderly, those whose lives are most defenseless.
In a frail human being, each one of us is invited to recognize the face of the Lord, who in his human flesh experienced the indifference and solitude to which we so often condemn the poorest of the poor, whether in developing countries or in wealthy societies. Every child who, rather than being born, is condemned unjustly to being aborted, bears the face of Jesus Christ, bears the face of the Lord, who even before he was born, and then just after birth, experienced the world’s rejection. And every elderly person – I spoke of children: let us move to the elderly, another point! And every elderly person, even if he is ill or at the end of his days, bears the face of Christ. They cannot be discarded, as the “culture of waste” suggests! They cannot be thrown away!
The third aspect is a mandate: be witnesses and diffusers of the “culture of life”. Your being Catholic entails a greater responsibility: first of all to yourselves, through a commitment consistent with your Christian vocation; and then to contemporary culture, by contributing to recognizing the transcendent dimension of human life, the imprint of God’s creative work,from the first moment of its conception.
In the Pope’s sermon celebrating Evangelium Vitae he makes some comments that are in direct opposition to the “unconstrained vision” as he states:
God is the Living One, the Merciful One; Jesus brings us the life of God; the Holy Spirit gives and keeps us in our new life as true sons and daughters of God. But all too often, as we know from experience, people do not choose life, they do not accept the “Gospel of Life” but let themselves be led by ideologies and ways of thinking that block life, that do not respect life, because they are dictated by selfishness, self-interest, profit, power and pleasure, and not by love, by concern for the good of others. It is the eternal dream of wanting to build the city of man without God, without God’s life and love – a new Tower of Babel. It is the idea that rejecting God, the message of Christ, the Gospel of Life, will somehow lead to freedom, to complete human fulfillment. As a result, the Living God is replaced by fleeting human idols which offer the intoxication of a flash of freedom, but in the end bring new forms of slavery and death.
The Pope comes very close to echoing the words of Whittaker Chambers about the vision of communism. The Pope sounds like quite the traditionalist when speaking about the Devil who he thinks is quite literally real:
“There are some priests who, when they read this Gospel passage, this and others say: ‘But, Jesus healed a person with a mental illness’. They do not read thus, no? It is true that at that time, they could confuse epilepsy with demonic possession; but it is also true that there was the Devil.”
“And we do not have the right to simplify the matter,” said Pope Francis, “as if to say: ‘All of these [people] were not possessed; they were mentally ill.’ No! The presence of the Devil is on the first page of the Bible, and the Bible ends as well with the presence of the Devil, with the victory of God over the Devil.”
Pope Francis then said that people must be vigilant and know that, if they advance in faith, the Devil will leave them alone for awhile but he always returns. “Today’s Gospel begins with the Devil being cast out and ends with the Devil coming back,” said the Pope. “St. Peter said, ‘It’s like a fierce lion that circles us.’ It is like that.”
As for his comments on Satan and other demons, the Pope said, “Some may say, but, Father, you’re too old fashioned. You’re frightening us with these things.’ No, it’s not me! It is the Gospel! And these are not lies: it is the Word of the Lord. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to take these things seriously. He came to fight for our salvation. He won against the Devil. Please, let’s not do business with the Devil. He wants to come back home, to take possession … Don’t accept relativism, be vigilant. And always with Jesus!”
So in spite of the rather breathless liberal commentary about Pope Francis, I do not think there is clear evidence that he is a “liberal” in the sense that National Catholic Reporter is composed of “liberals”, that is the Pope is not a modernist.
We might understand him a little better if we look at a key Vatican appointment. This would be the appointment of Archbishop Gerhard Mueller as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Now many have thought this is confirmatory of the Pope’s liberalism, since Archbishop Mueller was once taught by Fr Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of liberation theology. A deeper looker suggests something different. Archbishop Mueller has a different concern. It has been reported that the Archbishop is a friend of Pope Benedict XVI and is a known as an opponent of the “We are Church” movement (Advocates of women priests, Archbishop Mueller however has expressed sympathy for the views of liberation theology. Archbishop Mueller in an interview with the British Paper “the Tablet” said some interesting things including the following:
“The CDF is responsible for the whole world in the interests of the papal Magisterium. Bishops lead local Churches. The papal and the episcopal office are legitimized by divine law. That is something that bishops’ conferences are not. They are work groups but do not have a competence to teach of their own over and above that of an individual bishop’s mandate. So they are not a third authority between the Pope and bishops.”
When asked about the controversial La Repubblica interview in which the Pope was allegedly to have said the Catholic Church was too obsessed with moral issues, Archbishop Mueller said:
It’s not as if other bishops or Pope Benedict had constantly spoken about abortion, sexual morals or euthanasia. And pastoral work is not a therapeutic game. It wants to serve people with the Word of God. That is why juxtaposing doctrinal and moral teaching against pastoral work is not in the mind of the inventor. The former is the source of the latter.
Pope Francis has that special charism of being able to translate the Church’s doctrine of the faith, which he adheres to unconditionally as he never tires of emphasizing, into a personal encounter with people. As Pope he behaves like a local pastor.
It thus seems to me that Mueller is saying this opposition of dogma and doctrine and morals versus pastoral teaching is not the Pope’s view. The Pope would apparently say the doctrine and morals generate ones pastoral approach. Once again he notes that Pope Francis adheres to the teaching of the Church unconditionally. The full interview can be read here .
Finally a recent essay on the difficult situation of divorced and remarried Catholics written by Archbishop Mueller can be read here . To give you the flavor of the essay, one particular quote from it might yield some insight:
“It is frequently suggested that remarried divorcees should be allowed to decide for themselves, according to their conscience, whether or not to present themselves for Holy Communion. This argument, based on a problematical concept of “conscience”, was rejected by a document of the CDF in 1994. Naturally, the faithful must consider every time they attend Mass whether it is possible to receive communion, and a grave unconfessed sin would always be an impediment. At the same time they have the duty to form their conscience and to align it with the truth. In so doing they listen also to the Church’s Magisterium, which helps them “not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it”
If remarried divorcees are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage tribunals. Marriage is not simply about the relationship of two people to God, it is also a reality of the Church, a sacrament, and it is not for the individuals concerned to decide on its validity, but rather for the Church, into which the individuals are incorporated by faith and baptism. “If the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible.”
This is certainly not the view that the folks at the National Catholic Reporter, and the various modernist factions in the Church want to hear. Now while these are Archbishop Mueller’s views and not Pope Francis view, one would think that to some extent they must overlap with those of Pope Francis since he appointed him to the post.
So to answer our original question, Pope Francis adheres fully to the conception of a magisterial teaching Church, thinks the devil a real spiritual entity, his appointment to head the CDF rejects the idea that one can subjectively decide if they are in a valid marriage, and rejects the idea that the indissolubility of marriage is something dispensable, or that the Church’s conception of marriage is capable of change. It seems beyond dispute that the Pope would categorically the idea that abortion is other than a grave moral evil. I could go on but I take it you get the point. The Pope clearly is not a modernist, and thus is not a liberal in a theological sense. Still I would not say he is a “political conservative” either. What exactly I think he is, I will discuss in my next and final post on this topic.
Note: In the interest of accuracy, I would like to clarify that the original appointment to the CDF of Archbishop Mueller was by Pope Benedict XVI but reappointed to this post by Pope Francis. As is customary all curial officials resign and require reappointment by the new Pope. Pope Francis as made some changes, ( for example the changing the Prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy) so I think it is still valid to consider the CDF reappointment of Archbishop Mueller as reflecting the view that Pope Francis is comfortable with him and someone of his viewpoint as head of the CDF.